A Strong Sequel for the Real Life Working Girl

By a strange coincidence, Whitney Johnson had just arrived in New York when the movie Working Girl hit the big screen. And just like Melanie Griffith’s character, Tess McGill, Johnson was a secretary in the financial district who wanted to do better.

She had moved to New York so that her husband could study for a Ph.D. in microbiology at Columbia University. She was supporting them both and, with a music degree, being a secretary was the best option available. She found the work tedious. But all around her, executives—mostly men —were riding high on success in their high-powered financial positions.

“I was going to work and thinking, ‘this is not interesting, this is not exciting,’” Johnson recalls. “Working Girl came out when this was all happening, and I remember seeing the film and it inspired me. I thought, ‘I am going to do what she did.’”

Tess McGill’s “sense of pluck” resonated with Johnson. She related to the character’s internal drive to make something happen: “That sense of, ‘You look at me and think I can’t do this, and I’m not qualified, and I don’t look the part. And by golly, I’m going to do it anyway.’”

Johnson started taking business courses at night, got a job in investment banking, and within a decade became a top-ranked analyst at Merrill Lynch, specializing in Latin American markets. Today, she is the President and co-founder of Rose Park Advisors, a Boston-based investment firm focused on disruptive innovation, or companies that are creating or reshaping markets. She blogs for the Harvard Business Review and is the forthcoming author of Dare-Dream-Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare To Dream.

While Johnson has all the key attributes of a successful analyst—a great work ethic, a knack for building financial models and a keen eye for picking stocks that make money—she says her particular strength lies in forging solid connections between investors and CEOs.

To that end, being straightforward is crucial. She notes: “If I don’t know something, I say I don’t know. I don’t lie. And 99 percent of the time, people know that I genuinely care about them.”

People notice her authenticity. One business commentator said he reads Johnson’s blog to find out what a “real manager” is thinking. Johnson says she is pleased with that assessment because she thinks of herself as “a working person’s real-time commentator.”

By nature, Johnson is a person more likely to ask questions than to make statements. She is constantly assessing risk and working out the terms of a relationship, whether she is talking to a group of investors or her own children. “I look at what the transaction is in any given situation,” she says. “What is each stakeholder trying to get done? How can you make it so that each person can win?”

That inquisitive frame of mind makes her a master of details and a clear-sighted judge of circumstances. She describes herself as “very discovery-driven,” someone who looks at the “brass ring” in front of her and goes after it.

That’s one reason why she walked away from a seven-figure job at Merrill Lynch six years ago. There were no more brass rings, and she didn’t want to just keep “dialing it in,” she says: “I had peaked. I was not going to make more money than I was making. I felt the pull of wanting to do more entrepreneurial things, wanting to create and build something that was more mine.”

After a period of “reassessing and recalibrating,” Johnson now applies her financial expertise in a creative capacity at Rose Park Advisors. “I thought I would never go back to Wall Street,” she says. “But I spent nearly 15 years working incredibly hard to gain all these skills. I wanted to make a contribution, and I came back to that via this fund.”

With the fund now reaching critical mass, her blog gaining in popularity and her book about to launch, Johnson says she is in a highly satisfying “discovery stage” and she intends to keep it that way.

Clearly, the Tess McGill pluck is still going strong. For Johnson, dialing it in is simply not an option.